Lead On, “Ladies”

Two broke, out of work Shakespearian actors hatch a plan to steal an inheritance from a wealthy old maid by pretending to be her long lost nieces.  Wrenches start to get thrown into the plan when the two cross dressing con artists fall in love with a pair of women and word comes that the real nieces are on their way.  This is Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Ludwig is a masterful writer who knows all the ins and outs of good farce.  You’ve got the slamming doors, the over the top characters, the mistaken identities, and the ludicrous scenarios.  But Ludwig also adds a story that has got quite a bit of heart and includes a couple of surprising plot twists before the tale ends.  His terrific script is supported, nay, enhanced by a sterling cast that runs like a well oiled machine and obtains the maximum amount of yuks possible.

Jeff Horger paints a beautifully funny picture with his direction.  He clearly has an excellent grasp on farce with his use of broad, comedic strokes on the canvas.  Horger’s staging is top notch with his actors constantly moving about the performance space and his sight gags are completely organic and always apropos to the situation.  He’s also led his actors to strong, humorous performances and they made nary a misstep throughout the production.  Horger’s use of a melodramatic score composed and arranged by Vince Krysl is a positively inspired touch.

The supporting cast provides an excellent foundation for the comedy as each has developed a unique, zany character with his or her own particular quirks that brought vivid life to this world.  This includes Catherine Vazquez as a not overly bright waitress who builds a more complex vocabulary one word at a time, Sue Mouttet as the acid tongued matriarch with a heart of gold, and especially Don Harris and Christopher Scott who provided me with some deep belly laughs as the inept and lusty Doc Myers and his dopey son, Butch.

Will Muller stuns with his portrayal of Rev. Duncan Wooley.  With his unyielding posture, monotone voice, and limited, robotic movements, Muller has crafted one of the funniest characters I’ve seen in quite some time.  Muller’s Wooley may be a man of God, but he isn’t very likable as he is a stick in the mud’s stick in the mud who never wants to have any fun, plans a dull, businesslike wedding, and schemes to do God’s work using his fiancée’s wealth.  Muller is at his comedic best when his buttons get pushed to the point where his emotions finally explode out of him.

Victoria Luther is absolutely darling with her interpretation of Meg Snider, Wooley’s fiancée and heiress to a large fortune.  In many ways, Ms Luther is the glue of this cast as her character fuses the play’s unreality to its reality.  She is the most natural character in the show and brings a bright vibrancy with her character’s love of theatre and life.  Ms Luther shows impressive versatility as she easily switches from believable, grounded moments to over the top reactions when the need arises.

As important as the other characters are, the heaviest burden of this show lies on the shoulders of its “leading ladies” and the burden is well and ably carried by Kevin Goshorn and Michael Judah making their Playhouse debuts.

Michael Judah arguably does the most heavy lifting with his rendition of Leo Clark.  Clark is not only a sucky, over the top actor, but he is always on and has a mouth with an inexhaustible energy source.  Judah’s energy is unbelievably phenomenal as he rises to the challenge of this role with a feat of skillful overacting that would make John Carradine proud.  How he maintains that energy without collapsing is beyond me as he easily transitions from the theatrical Clark to the equally over the top “Maxine”.  Yet the over the topness of the character still seems completely natural.  It’s as if Clark doesn’t know how to just be himself until he falls in love with Meg and FINALLY drops his defenses and is able to engage in some lovely softer moments with her.

Kevin Goshorn’s Jack Gable is a worthy sidekick to Leo Clark.  Goshorn marvelously plays the loyal friend who gets caught up in Clark’s machinations.  Forced to impersonate Stephanie, the deaf and dumb niece, Goshorn has stupendous facial expressions and body language as he invents his own sign language to communicate with others and is especially amusing when he uses that sign language to tell “Maxine” he’d like to throttle “her”.  But he’s no shrinking violet.  As decent a person as Gable is, he isn’t above worming hugs out of the lady he likes or standing up to Clark by manipulating him to become “Maxine” just to screw with him.  Goshorn also gets the play’s funniest moment when he tries to bait Wooley into seducing him in order to help Clark get Meg.

The Snider estate, designed by Steve Wheeldon, is absolutely gorgeous with its soft blue walls and fancy double doors.  John Gibilisco’s sounds almost become extra characters with Clark’s idea moments and Meg’s entrance theme.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are extremely elegant, especially the gowns worn by Ms Luther, Judah, and Goshorn.  Darin Kuehler’s properties, especially the furniture, really liven up the stage.

This is the type of show that’s sure to take you out of yourself for a little while.  It’s not only laugh out loud funny, but it’s also got just the right touch of warmth and heart.

Leading Ladies runs at the Playhouse through May 7.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $36 for adults and $22 for students Thurs-Sun.  Wednesday show tickets are $28 for adults and $18 for students.  For tickets, contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

The Power of Perception

You nailed that audition to that ground.  Your spirits are in orbit.  There’s no way you’re not going to get that role.  And then you get a form letter thanking you for your time, but you could not be included in this particular production.

“What did I do wrong?” you think to yourself.

Odds are you did nothing wrong.  Consider the following quotations:

“I know you can play formal.”

“As soon as Jonathan Crane showed up on screen, Mat and I looked at each other and said, ‘Couldn’t you see Chris in that role?’”

“You remind me of a young Jimmy Stewart.  You play decent people, finding their way in the world, with a strong, moral center.”

“My perception is that you primarily fall into the category of Character Actor. . . As a character actor, you can come across as likable, but also stiff and a little repressed.  You also seem very controlled, and I don’t sense a lot of spontaneity. You seem most appropriate for someone who gets caught up in the events swirling around them rather than causing the swirling.  You can play both comic and serious, but I suspect that you’re a little stronger at the comic.  You do have the ability to play an “everyman” sort of character, though, and that is helpful.  And you are capable of projecting a certain sense of passion. “

Would it surprise you to learn that the previous quotations were about the same person?

That, in a nutshell, is the power of perception which is probably one of the most critical elements in being cast in a show.  It’s also the element over which you exert the least amount of control.

As auditioners, we all make choices about the characters we’re interested in and/or are asked to play.  Based on those choices and the uncontrollable factors I’ve often mentioned help dictate whether or not you get cast in a play.  But the biggest key to getting cast is how the choices you make and the uncontrollable factors cause the director to perceive you.

You could do the same audition for ten different people and each of those ten people will see something just a little bit different.  Some may think you are just perfect for the role.  Others may think you’re giving a terrible read.  Some may perceive something completely different from what you’re trying to project.  That’s the amazing thing about this business.  The possibilities are absolutely endless.

A few paragraphs back, you read 4 different observations about my own acting.  Not one of those people saw me in exactly the same way.  Each observation is colored not only by what these people have seen me do, but by their knowledge of me as a person.  That is a vital reality to keep in mind.

The first time you audition for a director is the only time you’ll be a tabula rasa (blank slate).  Even then, that might not be the case if you’ve developed a reputation of any kind in the theatre community.  From that first audition any number of things could happen.

Some directors will not cast you.  A few may decide that you fit a certain mold of character and will consider you if, and only if, that type of character is present in the story.  Others will like what they see, but believe you won’t work for this particular show.  There might even be a percentage of people who think you are the greatest thing since sliced bread and want to use you in every show she or he directs.  Heck, as you grow to know them personally, how your real self is perceived may play a heavy part in being included in future projects.

It’s very possible some reading this have grown or will grow frustrated with how they perceive they’re being perceived.  Don’t feel bad about that.  But don’t let the frustration control you either.  As the great writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, said, “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing while others judge us by what we have done.”  Just be true to yourself and your visions and, sooner or later, you may change someone’s mind or you’ll find someone who sees things the way that you do.

As I was preparing this article, a friend told me that changing a perception can be a very difficult task.  I completely agree with that sentiment.  I also don’t think it’s something you can consciously set out to do.  What you can do is focus on becoming the best actor that YOU can be.  Get out and audition.  Take a class.  When you watch a play, study it.  Discover what works and doesn’t work and why.  Most importantly, don’t give up.

Self-perception is just as crucial a component because we often become what we perceive, for good or for ill.  Feed yourself with positive thoughts and remember those good thoughts when things seem difficult.  That’s a lesson that’s good for life, not just for the theatre.

The best story I’ve ever heard about the power of positive self-perception was about a man who decided in his thirties to become a professional actor.  In this business, that’s an old age to begin making a go of this line of work.  He enrolled in the Pasadena Playhouse and flunked out with the worst scores in school history.

Determined to succeed, he moved to New York.  One of the jobs he took to make ends meet was as a doorman for a Howard Johnson hotel.  One day one of his teachers from the Pasadena Playhouse passed him as he worked the door.  The teacher recognized him and said, “See.  I said you would never amount to anything.”  The struggling actor later said that incident made him feel about one inch tall.

While he could have quit there and then, he soldiered on.  Ten years later he was the most bankable star in Hollywood.  That man was Gene Hackman.

At the end of the day, be happy.  Sometimes the power of perception will be a great asset and sometimes it will seem like a fierce opponent.  What ultimately matters is how you perceive yourself.  And when you perceive yourself well, you will always win, even if you lose.

Be good to yourself and God bless.

Overcoming Rejection (Now with Bonus Material)

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  For those of you wondering how my audition went, I am sorry to report that I did not get cast in Boeing, Boeing.  A year ago, I would have really taken this defeat to heart, but thanks to Leaving Iowa, that is no longer the case.  My only real regret is that I missed out on my final chance to work with Carl Beck.  But I would like to take a moment to thank him for the opportunities he gave me in my early days when I was. . .less than good ;).  I wrote the following article shortly before my casting in Leaving Iowa about a year ago and thought it would be good for any actors who read my blog who may be having their own struggles with theatre.

Auditions.  I think that word has the same effect on actors the way crosses affect vampires.  Yet all performers must endure them in order to be able to do a show.

Personally, I don’t mind auditions as I view it as the one brief moment where I can showcase my craft.  It’s the aftermath of the audition that can be depressing when I meet the dreaded beast known as REJECTION.

What is so peculiar about the audition process is that an actor actually has very little control over it.  The only control an actor has is over his or her acting, singing, and dancing and that actually counts for very little in getting cast.  Uncontrollable factors such as weight, sound, look, chemistry, director’s vision,  and other items play a much greater role in getting cast.  It will NEVER be purely about talent.

I learned that lesson in the most brutal way imaginable.  A short time into my career, my dream show, The Elephant Man, was going to be produced.  I prepared like I had never prepared before.  By the time I walked into the audition, I was thinking, speaking, and being John Merrick.  And it was a fabulous audition.  In fact, I rank my read as Merrick, as my absolute finest.  Three weeks later I received notification that I was not cast in the show and to say I was crushed would be the understatement of a lifetime.  I was CRRRRUSHHHEDDDD!!!!!!  Imagine how flabbergasted I was to later discover that the reason I wasn’t cast was because the director thought I had worked too hard on the role.  That was how I learned about the power of uncontrollable factors.

I have been in this business for nearly 18 years and after all this time I still get terribly disappointed when I do not get cast in a show.  As actors, we put ourselves on the line and lay bare our souls for judgment in the hopes that our talent, in conjunction with those uncontrollable factors, is enough to land roles.  If I didn’t feel bad about not getting cast, I would think I wasn’t caring enough.

There are only 2 types of auditions that do not bother me when I don’t get cast.  The first is if I simply didn’t do a good job.  If I had a poor audition, I have nothing to feel bad about because I know I didn’t present myself in my best light.  I have a “Darn it!” moment and move on to the next audition.  The other type is if I know I was simply outclassed on that particular audition.  Nearly two years ago, I auditioned for a show called Becky’s New Car and I had a really great audition.  I was proud of it.  But there was another gent there whose audition was clearly superior to mine.  When he was done reading, I wanted to stand up and say, “We have a winner!!  Give him the role.”

After many years of hard work, I have evolved into a decent actor so those types of auditions occur very infrequently today.  Most of my defeats in recent years have occurred simply because of factors outside of my control.  And it is very humbling to know you have done good work and to not have that work rewarded.  The only blow more difficult is to know you did not have a chance to show your absolute best and that blow is downright devastating.

With very rare exceptions, I go into every audition thoroughly prepared.  By that I mean, I’ve read the play, selected the characters I’ve liked, and put some practice into those roles so I can be seen in the best possible light.  Back in 2008, I auditioned for Twelve Angry Men and I dutifully prepared the role of Juror 8 (played by Henry Fonda in the film version).  I was in the first group called up and I was asked to read the role of Juror 2 (played by John Fiedler in the film) for that scene.  Juror 2 had 3 very short sentences in that scene, so all I could really do was listen to the others as a very nervous man would.  After several more rounds with other actors, the director said she would start dismissing people and I was the first person eliminated.  I was stunned, but refused to go down without a fight.  I asked if I could read for Juror 8 and the director thought for a moment before looking at me and saying, “I don’t see you as Juror 8.”  I felt like I had just been punched in the gut with a gauntlet.  Losing is one thing, but to lose without being able to go down swinging is another.

I share these anecdotes with you so you know that rejection happens to every actor.  It’s a guarantee. It’s also OK to feel bad about being rejected.  It’s natural.  It’s understandable.  Just remember to keep it in perspective.

Remember that being rejected is not personal.  A director never feels good about making an actor feel bad and he or she does not WANT to make an actor feel bad.  Heck, the directors in my first and third anecdotes went out of their way to console me after I swallowed the bitter pills.  Neither one was saying I was a bad actor.  All they were really saying was that I just didn’t suit their vision of the characters.  A director sees the whole of a show and makes casting decisions to ensure the artistic integrity of the project.  Those decisions are impersonal and you should never take a rejection as a slight on your talent.  One rejection or a string of rejections does not mean you are not a well rounded performer.  All a rejection means is that you didn’t suit the particular needs of that particular director for that particular project.  And remember casting is very, very hard.  I just assisted with the biggest audition in Omaha history.  350 people showed up to audition for Les Miserables.  Regrettably, 300+ talented people aren’t going to make it in and that will not be a reflection on their abilities.

Recently, I read a wonderful article on handling audition rejection and that is what inspired me to write this article.  The author pointed out that after a bad audition experience, NEVER DWELL ON THE NEGATIVES.  Consider them in terms of improvement for the next audition, but do not DWELL on them.  Instead, FOCUS on the things that went well for you and remember them in terms of good solid audition technique as well as the strengths you possess as a performer.

Most importantly, NEVER DEFINE YOURSELF BY THE AUDITION.  Just because your unique styles and strengths weren’t needed for this particular project doesn’t mean they won’t be vital for the next project.

ALWAYS BELIEVE IN YOUR TALENT.  Talent cannot be stopped.  Eventually, it does prove itself whether it takes 8 auditions or 800 auditions.

COMING SOON:  I will be returning to Las Vegas for another series of stories in March.  I will also be reviewing the Prairie Creek Bed and Breakfast in a little under two weeks.  In the meantime, if you need a fix of traveling stories, please visit my brother’s travel blog at http://thatoneguywhotravels.wordpress.com.